Otherworldly Politics – how science fiction can help us understand realpolitik

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Science Fiction can often help us understand realpolitik in the real world.

Is Tyrian Lannister a realist or a liberal? What would Mr. Spock have to say about rational choice theory? And what did Stanley Kubrick read to create Dr. Strangelove? Stephen Dyson is the author of Otherworldly Politics: The International Relations of Star Trek, Game of Thrones, and Battlestar Galactica(Johns Hopkins University Press 2015) and associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut. In this interview with Heath Brown (originally made for the New Books Network) he takes on these questions with an enjoyable exploration for how the classic theories of International Relations have been played on our television and movie screens.

Heath Brown: Even those of us who don’t study International Relations know about the classic divide between ‘realists’ and ‘liberals’. You look to the fictional world of Game of Thrones to explain this. So, who are the realists and who are the liberals in the world of Westeros?

SD: I think the whole first season of Game of Thrones is an excellent illustration of this whole liberal/realist divide. The liberals are the idealists, of course, people who believe politics should be about values and ethics, and human nature is fundamentally good, and the way you promote peace in the world – and peace is achievable – is that you act in accordance with your values and you trust other people. I think they were represented, especially in the first season, and later, by the Starks in Game of Thrones, the Guardians of the North. People like Ned Stark, an extremely stubborn individual, very moralistic, someone who always wanted to do the right thing, but who was (as many liberals are, as idealists are) pretty bad at the down and dirty work of politics. In Game of Thrones Ned is doing well in the North, he is among his own people, and he understands its politics and is able to make a virtue of his idealism. Then the king, his old friend, comes to see him and says, ‘I need you in the South’. But Southern politics is very different, the realm of Real Politique, the realm of the Stark’s great antagonists the Lanisters, who represent the realist point of view.

Ned, very unwisely, follows his friend down south. It is the right thing to do, he gave his word to his friend, he owes duty to his friend, the king, and he meets a sticky end in the south because he is out manoevered by realists.

HB: And we can say, for those who haven’t watched the show…..

SD: ……yes, spoiler alert…..

HB: that you haven’t yet been spoiled! You write in the book about Star Trek, Game of Thrones, Battlestar Gallactica, but not about Star wars – so no Star Wars spoilers, either!

One of the central concerns of scholars in lots of fields is the extent to which rationality is an abstract idea, or something that really drives decision making. Trekkies have their own ways to express this debate…..how does Star Trek use Mr Sock’s rationality?

SD: Mr Spock is probably the greatest fictional representative of what is, in academic circles, in danger of being the pretty boring and bloodless theory of rational choice. When you try to explain it, eyes glaze over but if you can dramatise it in the figure of someone like Mr Spock you can keep them interested. Spock, on Star Trek, was a Vulcan, someone committed to making decisions from a logical standpoint calculating the costs and benefits. The greatest example was in the movie The Wrath of Khan, my favourite movie. Again, spoiler alert if you haven’t seen it, Spock applies his utilitarianism, his rationality throughout the movie to help his friend Kirk (the embodiment of feeling and emotion) – Spock is cool and Kirk is hot – and when they work together they can be really successful. And they ARE successful. They beat Kirk’s nemesis, Khan, and it is Spock’s rationality and Kirk’s emotion that work together, but at a huge cost! Spock is faced with a decision which is about him sacrificing himself so that the ship can be saved. He makes that decision, and he expresses it in cold logical terms. He says, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few….” “or the one.”

That is a perfect illustration of utilitarianism, of rational choice. If you follow that and make decisions entirely logically it can lead you to uncomfortable places. This has been the story of rational choice, it can lead to surprising outcomes, and uncomfortable decisions. Spock dramatises that perfectly.

HB: Given the recent Republican debates, someof the cold war concerns you write about in the book, particularly nuclear war, feel so much more real now, than even just a couple of weeks ago! Some of this fiction grew up in that environment in the 50s and 60s. So I was intrigued by your writing about Dr Stangelove. Which theories from international relations are played out in that movie and how connected was Stanley Kubrick to academic literature on the subject incorporated into this fictional movie he made?

SD: In the couple of decades after WW2 political science was developing as a discipline. In Europe it retained links to the humanities and philosophy and sociology but in the US it became like rational actor theory – imbued, close to economics. Political scientists were starting to work with the government so you’d have these think tanks which would bridge government and academia, places like the Rand Corporation. These influences came together with what was going on in world politics – the development of the cold war, the development of nuclear weapons –and there was a merging between a school of political analysis that was very rational and based on economic logic and the government needing to develop a set of policies to deal with the Cold War with the Soviet Union, to deal with the fact that the soviet Union and the US had large nuclear arsenals. Theories most applicable here were ‘deterrence theory’, ‘rational deterrence theory’, and what became known as the logic of ‘mutually assured destruction’. This is a totally rational, logical concept, the peace will be kept by the fact that I will be so scared of launching my weapons against you because I know if I do, you will launch yours against me. That fear of mutual destruction will paradoxically keep the peace between us.

That was the idea coming out of political science. But if you think about it, it was a totally ludicrous scenario that you had these great theories of death and these weapons of mass destruction that were supposed to keep the peace. To people like Kubrick who had read these theories and the calculations that would go into deterrence and mutually assured destruction, it seemed absurd. That’s where Dr Strangelove comes from.

Kubrick had originally intended to write a thriller, Dr Stangelove the book was supposed to be a straight-up thriller about a chain of events that would go wrong, leading to the launch of nuclear weapons that would mean the end of life on earth. He read academic theories on this stuff and he looked into what government policy was and he started to think, ‘this is absurd, there is no way to shoot this straight up, we have entered into the realms of utter absurdity, which is also absolutely terrifying!’

I show Dr Strangelove in class a lot, because not only is it deeply funny and satirical, and a great historical document, but it also gets you to think about these notions of deterrence and rationality in a very visceral way.

HB: The one TV programme I haven’t seen myself is Battlestar Galactica, I think I saw the old version, but not the new……

SD: It is a very different version

HB: ……..so I was surprised it had significance. I have heard that lots of people enjoyed the show, and you talk about a typical episode in the new series, and how it is coming at these ideas.

SD: Battlestar Galactica, which ran in ‘the reimagined version’ from 2003-9 is the central pop culture/political crossover text of our time. It was brought to the screen by Ronald D Moore who had been involved in Star Trek. Moore had decided that Star Trek was not serious enough or dark enough, particularly in this post 9/11 world, and this world of advancing robot technology and cloning technology, that Star Trek was no longer speaking to modern concerns. It was too idealistic, the story telling was too episodic, and he looked at Battlestar Galactica which existed in the 1970s as a cheesy cartoonish type of thing. He said, ‘yes, that was a stupid show in the 70s, but its central premise – a few survivors fleeing an apocalypse – is really interesting and dark and will resonate in a post 9/11 world, in a way it didn’t before.’

The episode I write about in the book is the first episode of season 1, called ‘The 33’. It is the episode that dramatizes crisis, a political, foreign policy crisis in a superb, visceral way. The premise of The 33 is that the humans, having just seen their civilisation wiped out, are running for their lives, escaping from their enemy , the Cylons, who keep appearing every 33 minutes. The humans are able to get away, but in the 32 minute respite from the grinding, existential crisis the crew cannot sleep, they are losing their mind. People are dying because of human mistakes, the Cylons don’t have to do anything. After 3 or 4 days of this, everyone is so sleep deprived that they can’t even make the ship function. The 33 is an excellent document of crisis, and the challenges that face top level decision makers during crises. You have a president and a military commander in Battlestar Galactica and they are having to make life and death calls in an instant, when they haven’t slept and they can’t really know all the information. I juxtapose The 33 with the Cuban missile crisis, which took not 33 minutes but 13 days, though in a lot of the testimony of those involved. Robert McNamara talked a lot about it, a lot of the same themes show through – people are sleep deprived, they are looking at the end of the world, trying to make life and death decisions, there is no one else to make the decision but them. That is when you get something we often forget about in political science: at the end of the day, policies, States, war and peace, it all comes down to human beings making decisions. And if the human beings get it wrong then it is a big problem.

HB: Is there something you watch now that you could recommend because of the way it aligns with the events of our days?

SD: Yes, The Leftovers on HBO.

Pic: Eyes on fire 89

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